Simultaneous invention

Liebniz and Newton invented the calculus at roughly the same time.

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both invented the telephone at the same time, and filed with the patent office a few hours apart.

While it takes smart and insightful people to make these things happen, inventions are also the product of their time, and of other trends that are more or less well-known. Often the invention is a matter of recombining existing technologies in a novel way.

Apple’s recent demo of Tiger got a lot of people thinking “gosh, Dashboard looks an awful lot like Konfabulator. Apple must have ripped off those Konfabulator guys.”

This created a stir on Mac sites, with some claiming it’s a ripoff, some suggesting that the gracious thing for Apple to do would at least be to compensate the Konfab people for pulling the rug out from underneath them, and others pointing out that in fact, there was plenty of prior art to Konfabulator. John Gruber, astute as usual, pointed out that Apple in fact is not ripping off much of anything.

What do all these things do? They give you a simple way to script mini-applications–both Dashboard and Konfab use Javascript–and a method for skinning them. Konfabulator uses a somewhat unfriendly XML format; Dashboard uses straight HTML/CSS, but the two are pretty similar.

Here’s the thing: neither one is even a little bit original. Mozilla uses this idea already: it has a markup language called XUL for painting the browser’s “chrome,” and Microsoft is working on it’s own version of this, XAML. These use javascript to build application interfaces and javascript to handle user interactions. Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, when MS announced XAML, there was some hand-wringing a while back over how it was ripping off XUL.

Ideas like skinning, making scripting more accessible to more people, using standard markup languages to generate interfaces, etc, are ideas whose times have all come in the computing world. Lightbulbs lit up over lot of people’s heads, and they combined these ideas in similar ways. Konfabulator clearly beat Dashboard to market (though I find the product all-but unusable), but it is original only in the sense that its creators had the idea on their own (if in fact that is so), not in the sense that its creators are the only ones to have the idea.

1 thought on “Simultaneous invention”

  1. “…it seems to be true that many things have, as it were, an epoch in which they are discovered in several places simultaneously, just as the violets appear on all sides in the springtime.”

    –Wolfgang Bolyai, father of Janos Bolyai, one of the three roughly contemporary discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry

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